Afropop giants Antibalas, Zap Mama to heat up the Latchis

BRATTLEBORO — Two of the most innovative and provocative groups in World Music are joining forces for a 29-date American concert tour, with a stop on Feb. 9 at the Latchis Theatre.

In association with Marlboro College, Kingdom County Productions presents its biggest event of this season: the exclusive northern New England concerts by America's premier Afrobeat big-band, Antibalas, and Marie Daulne's acclaimed Afro Pop vocal group, Zap Mama.

The groups are collaborating like this for the first time.

Antibalas and Zap Mama will perform separately and together with as many as 18 musicians on stage. Antibalas combines jazz, Afrobeat, Afro-Caribbean drumming and New York-flavored Latin funk, while Zap Mama melds soul and hip-hop with American and European urban music by using ethnic polyphonic vocal structures.

Antibalas' distinctive sound has led the band to perform worldwide to collaborate with a wide variety of artists, including the Roots, Betty Lavette, and David Byrne and St. Vincent.

Founded in 1998, the band rose to prominence in 2007 for its role as musical directors and performers for the Tony-Award-winning Broadway hit musical “Fela!”

“That show was big deal,” says film director Jay Craven, who leads Kingdom County Productions. “It was nominated for something like 10 Tony Awards and really gave Afrobeat a big boost in the popular imagination.”

[In 2010 the original Broadway production of “Fela!” was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and won three.]

Zap Mama is an all-female troupe of Afro-pop vocalists. Marie Daulne, known worldwide as the creative force behind Zap Mama, redefines the word “vocalist” by creatively expressing sound and storytelling through tone and pure voice.

Based in Europe, this six-piece band first created a sensation in the U.S. world music scene in 1991 with its critically acclaimed self-titled release on David Byrne's Luaka Bop label.

Martín Perna from Antibalas writes in the press release for the concerts, “I've been a fan of Zap Mama for 20 years. We've never had the chance to collaborate before, nor with any other group on this scale. This is a thrill and a privilege for us to be working together. I think the energies and talents of each group are complementary and really exciting things will happen when we get to perform.”

Daulne adds, “Every time I do a tour, I want the show to have its own unique story arc, which gives a certain flow or cohesiveness to the presentation. I'm very excited to explore the intersections between our globally influenced vocal harmonies and the polyrhythmic rhythms of Antibalas. I'm sure it will be an exciting and fun journey.”

“Antibalas is a 12-piece Afrobeat orchestra which has a really big sound, with lots of percussion and brass,” says Craven. “Their concerts are high-octane, high-energy, with music inspired by the great Nigerian Fela Kuti, who originated Afrobeat.”

Afrobeat, the combination of traditional Nigerian and Ghanaian music, jazz, highlife, funk, and chanted vocals, fused with percussion and vocal styles, was popularized in Africa in the 1970s and spread around the world.

According to Craven, Fela Kuti - whose life and music inspired “Fela!” - was “not only a musical innovator but also a political force in Nigeria. In Nigeria's repressive culture, Kuti was thrown in jail for his human rights advocacy. A great cultural hero, he died young of AIDS at the age of 59. Millions attended his funeral.”

Antibalas is the North American standard bearer of the style of music created by Kuti, Craven said, and, “like Fela, they also bring a human rights message to their work.”

Zap Mama performs music that also is an eclectic mixture of many musical traditions.

“This six-piece band with its smaller sound will be a nice complement to Antibalas,” Craven says. “Unlike the big instrumental sound of Antibalas, Zap Mama focuses on voice, which Daulne calls the original, the purest and the most soulful of all instruments.”

Daulne grew up in Belgium but was born in the Belgian Congo, the central African nation then a colony of Belgium until it achieved independence in 1960. It is now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“Like Nigeria, the Congo is a political quagmire,” Craven says. “Her family had to flee when the great progressive leader Patrice Lumumba was thrown from power.”

Daulne had only been born a few days when her father was killed by the Simba Rebels during the Congo crisis of the early 1960s. The crisis resulted in the deaths of some 100,000 people. Marie and the rest of her family went into hiding in the forest of the Congo, where she lived until 1961 when the family escaped to Belgium.

She had a difficult time adjusting in Belgium.

“Belgium did not have a lot of black people,” Craven says. “She saw that the blacks who succeeded did so either through sports or the arts. She tried both. Although she began as an athlete, Marie found herself drawn to music. Ultimately, she went back to Africa to figure out what her music was all about.”

In 1989, Daulne gave her first hugely successful concert. In 1992, Zap Mama came to the United States for the first time to perform at New Music Seminar in New York. There, they met David Byrne and agreed to let him reissue Zap Mama's first recordings as “Adventures in Afropea 1” on Luaka Bop Records.

By the end of the year, Billboard announced it was the top seller in World Music.

“This Zap Mama/Antibalas concert is part of a big tour, with playdates in New York, Washington, and San Francisco, and it may seem odd to see a little town like Brattleboro on that list,” Craven says. “I think it is important to bring artists such as these to our area. Vermonters don't get a lot of exposure to African or even Afro-American culture, so the concert feels good in a fun way.”

Craven says that bringing so many musicians to town, finding them places to stay, setting up the sound system and lighting, all makes an expensive show to produce.

“Consequentially, we are now able only to do one a year on such a scale,” Craven explains.

But Craven says that the gamble that his Kingdom County Productions is taking on producing such a costly show is worth it.

“We try to keep the tickets affordable, beginning at only $18, and tickets are free for high school students to encourage their interest in the arts. I take no pay for what I do. But I feel it is important to bring such events here in order to build up a following for what we do in Windham County. But it is risky.

“Although we have some great corporate sponsors here, we do not yet have the level of corporate support we have with our shows in the Northeast Kingdom. I suppose for them as for us, Kingdom Country Productions in Southern Vermont is still a developing venture.”

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